The Gospel of Matthew has several large sections of Jesus’ teaching, five in total.
Chapter 18 opens with the disciples asking Jesus a rather self-serving question: Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven? He does not answer them as they thought he would. He doesn’t say, “Of course, it’s you twelve loyal disciples!” Instead, he takes a little child and brings her to their attention.
Much of the teaching in Chapter 18 seems to center on that image of the little child. Jesus said that unless we become like a little child, we will not enter the kingdom of heaven. NT Wright says, in his Matthew For Everyone, the child is “shy, vulnerable, unsure of herself, but trusting and with clear eyes, ready to listen, to be loved and to love, to learn and grow.”
In a world where the noisiest, angriest, strongest, most powerful people seem like winners, we see Jesus hold up a humble little child before his disciples (and us) and ask us to imitate her, as we seek the kingdom of heaven, which we can access here and now.
Especially in Jesus’ time, children were the least important, weakest and most vulnerable members of society (and this is still true in many places). Jesus reminds us here, as he did in his Beatitudes, that there is a reality beyond our own world, where life won’t be dog-eat-dog, brutal and base—where the meek, the peacemakers, the little ones will be treasured and valued. To access that life now, we must become like little children.
Jesus uses more powerful images to deter us from sin: better to lose a hand or an eye than to sin with those intact. And then he returns to those “little ones”—children and other vulnerable people, those who are easily wronged—and he tells us to what lengths our Father in Heaven will go to save one of them. He tells a parable of a shepherd who has one hundred sheep; if one goes astray, the shepherd will leave everything behind to seek it and will then rejoice more at finding the lost sheep than over those that stayed put.
Then Jesus begins to talk about resolving disputes in a fellowship, with an eye to retaining a good relationship with the offender if possible. (Maybe that is the link between the lost sheep parable and this section—that people are also worth seeking and finding if one has gone astray). He outlines a way to reconcile, first advocating a one-on-one conversation about the sin in question. If the brother or sister won’t listen, then you take one or two others with you, that they might witness the problem between the two of you. If that does not work, then the problem is shared with the fellowship, and if even that does not bring apology and resolution, then “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector,” meaning they should no longer be treated as a member of the fellowship.
Then Peter asks, “How often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Is seven times enough?” Jesus says, how about seventy-seven times?
The chapter ends with a parable showing the meaning of this command given to Peter.